Dave McConnell has decoded the secret for surviving eight presidential terms as WTOP radio’s Capitol Hill reporter. “You are campaigning every day here,” he enthuses. “I promise to write a fair, objective story about you. And if I don’t, you have the ability to never speak to me again. It’s like a rejection by the voters.”
Come January, McConnell, 76, will mark his 32nd continuous year soaking up the nuanced melodrama, the crackling repartee, the subtle one-act performances, the potboiling elocution and low buffoonery of one of America’s least-beloved institutions — Congress.
But the war horse still loves action. Every morning, he drives into the underground parking garage in the Rayburn Building, gathers his thoughts and his belongings, and hoofs it to the subway that connects the Capitol with its surrounding staff office buildings. As he filters all the sensory images, he always takes stock and whispers this line: “ ‘My God, I’m in the Capitol of the United States of America, the capital of the free world.’ That ricochets through my head. This is something a reporter is not supposed to have.” Then, there’s this assurance: “Don’t get me wrong. They’re not going to get away with anything.”
Nine days from now, McConnell again gets a chance to tap his deep and rich reservoir of institutional knowledge as principal anchor of WTOP’s wall-to-wall election-night coverage. He’s been with the stalwart local station since 1965, when it was at 1500 on the AM dial (it’s now at 103.5 FM) and favored a news-talk format. He started as a street reporter before shifting to anchor and landing at his current post in 1981.
He boils the essence of beat reporting down to a simple statement: “We don’t want to be behind a desk from 9 to 5. We’re curious, maybe nosy. We want to tell the story. Radio presents a unique narrative form. It’s just you and the listener.”
‘What amazes me is the ability Dave has to go live on the radio or to walk in the studio and make sense out of complex things, to make sense out of history,” says Bob Marbourg, McConnell’s longtime WTOP colleague. McConnell and Marbourg first met more than 30 years ago, when Marbourg reported on Washington gridlock — the kind with actual vehicles — from a helicopter in the sky. Today, the 68-year-old Marbourg, the town’s elder statesman of traffic reporting, remains in awe of McConnell’s skill set. Sharing “off the top of his head the impressions he has. It’s a gift that allows you to perform an art,” he adds.
In a city like Washington, where national news and local news often collide, the only way a station can do its audience justice is to have a reporter covering Congress but not on a piecemeal basis. “I am a full-time chronicler of Congress,” McConnell declares, after updating his editor back at the station. “And to be a fulltime chronicler, you have to be here every day.”
During his career, McConnell says he’s prided himself on his manner. “I try to be fair,” he says. “I’m not a ‘gotcha’ reporter. I’m not trying to make their days tough. I use tact, not letting Dave McConnell become the story.”
Many in the herd of 535 elected members laud McConnell for the way he goes about his job. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) calls him “an important fixture on Capitol Hill. . . . I admire his dedication to his listeners.” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) says, “He’s ethical, thorough and balanced. An old-school guy and a class act.”
McConnell is tall and lean, and holds forth on the third floor of the Capitol, in a space wedged between the PBS “NewsHour” and CNN. His work area is only a bit larger than a phone booth. Amid the control board’s red and green lights, his microphone and headphones, he shapes and finesses quick updates throughout the day that are short, punchy and typically about a minute long. On election night, he’ll be providing perspective and analysis from WTOP’s famous glass-enclosed nerve center in upper Northwest.
Given the nature of a commercial outlet with an all-news format, stories must be kept brief. McConnell concedes non-commercial entities like NPR “have the advantage in going long-form.” Still, in the cacophony of the day-to-day, “people don’t always have the time. Surveys show listeners trail off after a time. We both serve the public. We’re complementary.”
‘True story,” begins Jim Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming. “When Dave was in high school, he and his buddies cut class to go see the Senators play at Griffith Stadium. The other guys went to see the Senators. Dave literally went to Capitol Hill to watch senators debate. I don’t know if our younger reporters could keep up with Dave.”
He’s there for all-night filibusters, long confirmation hearings and garden-variety speeches. And, somehow, he remains unjaded. McConnell has a ready response for those who bemoan how Congress remains bitterly divided. Not so fast, he explains. At best, Congress offers a mirror on the human condition. Whenever people assemble in any setting — particularly those with dominant personalities — “there’s going to be backbiting,” McConnell warns. “It’s always been that way. There will be long periods of great inactivity and shorter periods of real accomplishment.”
McConnell, a father of three and grandfather of seven, has seen Congresses come and Congresses go. Watching the passing show, he says, has enabled him to draw some unscientific conclusions about those who serve in the legislative big-leagues. He winnows members into two categories.
The first, he notes, excel academically and socially. “He believes he can come here and be successful. He isn’t driven by public service. It’s an ego thing — and I mean a good ego thing.” The second are on a quest to “advance the voters’ agenda for good. It’s the best job these people will ever have. And why shouldn’t it be?”
It’s a job that many of his broadcast colleagues dream of having, and McConnell says the inverse is also true.
“All reporters would love to run for office,” he says, “and all members want to be media types.” But after demystifying the legislative process through eight presidential terms, McConnell is not conflicted.
“I’m doing what I should be doing.”
Glaros is a freelance writer.